When it comes to educational transformation, Victoria Burns prefers to think of her school district as ordinary.
“If we can do it, it’s something that can be translated to almost anyone,” said Burns, superintendent of School Administrative District 15, which serves Gray and New Gloucester.
Over the past two years, the 2,000-student district in Cumberland County has embarked on an ambitious effort aimed at connecting student learning directly to the academic standards students are expected to master, and allowing students the chance to customize their learning experience.
Administrators from SAD 15 spoke about their transformation June 27 at the 2011 Maine School Superintendents’ Conference in Augusta.
The undertaking began in 2009 when SAD 15 became a pilot district in Maine for implementing the standards-based education model championed by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, or RISC.
Growth in academic achievement had stalled after nearly a decade of reform attempts, Burns said. Those efforts included forming professional learning communities to encourage greater collaboration among teachers and revising curriculum so it aligned more closely with the district’s school board-adopted vision.
“We did not have a systemic approach to meeting our vision,” Burns said. But the RISC model appeared to offer what SAD 15 sought.
Through a combination of community meetings, ongoing training and on-site visits from RISC staff, SAD 15 teachers started to work toward a district vision that held that all children would learn; become productive, compassionate citizens; and experience a course of rigorous academics.
“It gave us something to lay our head on,” Burns said.
Transparency was at the heart of the standards-based undertaking, said Geoff Robbins, assistant principal at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School.
“Students generally don’t have an idea of what standards they’re working on,” he said.
That began to change when the middle-school teachers piloting the standards-based model got together last summer to review the Common Core state standards for math and English. They divided each standard into specific learning targets detailing what students should be able to do once they’ve mastered a standard.
Charts of those learning targets, along with displays of the original Common Core standards, dot the walls of Gray-New Gloucester Middle School classrooms. Teachers often begin lessons by “unpacking” the standards, Robbins said.
That involves discussion with students to define the standards covered in a particular lesson and what students need to do to demonstrate they’ve mastered those standards. As students complete lessons — which are self-guided — they fill out “matrices” to keep track of the standards they’re meeting and how they’re choosing to meet them. They move onto the next unit with new standards at their own pace, once they’ve mastered the previous set of standards.
“If they don’t know what they’re trying to learn, how can they guide it?” Robbins said.
SAD 15 is in the midst of a five-year transformation to an entirely standards-based model of education, Burns said.
- In the fall, the district will abandon letter grades for students in kindergarten through eighth grade in favor of a system that grades students on specific standards, rather than assign an aggregate class grade. In addition, SAD 15 staff are working to develop instructional units to place on the district website to allow students to complete their work anytime, anywhere.
- The standards-based system will be slower to take hold at Gray-New Gloucester High School. Currently, one math teacher and one English teacher are piloting the system. With the help of a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, middle- and high-school teachers will spend time together over the summer to work on spreading the model to the upper grades.
- SAD 15 began its move to the standards-based system largely to make learning more relevant and engaging for students. In a district survey, just a quarter of Gray-New Gloucester High School students said they had a say in their learning. Forty-two percent of those students said learning was fun, compared to 58 percent of students at the middle school. Half of students wanted more of a say in how they learned.
- SAD 15 administrators said it was challenging to undertake the standards-based transformation without example school districts nearby to visit to see the new model in action. That’s why SAD 15 started by creating pilot classrooms, Gray-New Gloucester Middle School Principal Sherry Levesque said. It was also a challenge initially to encourage students to take charge of their learning, after they had spent several years in an educational system that didn’t require it, Burns said.
- Teachers in SAD 15’s standards-based classrooms have reserved the first few days of each school year to – with students – create a classroom code of conduct and establish standard operating procedures. “Everybody had a voice to start with, and everybody had the ability to put input into what rules would be,” Levesque said. “This is time well spent. Once you spend that time, you don’t have to do it again.”